On her restaurant’s last day, Carolyn Artis hurried back and forth behind the crowded counter at The Coffee Pot, waiting on customers who had long called her a friend, even family.
Along with the last plates of hamburger steak and the final mugs of coffee, the counter held bouquets of balloons and flowers, parting gifts to Artis after more than 30 years.
More important, nearly every seat in the restaurant held a regular diner who had come to pay tribute to the eatery in its last hours. Across tables, friendly patrons asked which Smithfield restaurant would become their next hangout or where else they could find home-style cooking.
Occasionally, one diner would ask another to buy the restaurant from Artis to keep it going.
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“It’s an icon,” said Bud Andrews, a regular customer and Smithfield resident. “We’re waiting on a white knight.”
Artis had said in an earlier interview that she would have had a hard time selling the restaurant because of the costly renovations it needed.
On the last day, which she figured would be even busier than usual, Artis called on family members to help out. Among them were her husband, a son and numerous granddaughters.
“There are mixed emotions,” said granddaughter Brittaney Jeeter, 24.
Mike and Kathryn Fleming had eaten at The Coffee Pot most Fridays since they were married 24 years ago. Mike Fleming grew up frequenting the restaurant and valued the personable staff because they knew their customers by name and order. He doubts anything will be able to replace The Coffee Pot and its unique family-style menu.
“It’s part of Smithfield’s heritage,” Kathryn Fleming said.
Many customers said their now-grown children had asked their parents to bring them – or send them – childhood favorites such as chicken salad sandwiches or hamburger steak.
Smithfield resident Eli Pernell recalled that when he was a kid, Artis made him smiley-face pancakes. He has visited The Coffee Pot his whole life and viewed the staff as family.
Often, Artis would leave his father food in the restaurant fridge for him to pick up on his way home from work, Pernell said. He learned the restaurant was closing the day before.
“My first thought was daddy’s gonna starve to death,” Pernell said. “I guess I’ve taken it for granted.”
Four employees of the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center met for lunch frequently at The Coffee Pot. Employee Julie Edmonds said she supposed the group would have to start bringing lunch to work.
While enjoying hamburger steak sandwiches, Carolyn Ragsdale, Mary Foy Ragsdale and Eleanor Mitchiner said they had come to the restarant every day during the final week.
“It’s nice walking in a place where they know your name and speak to you,” Mary Foy said. “It’s ‘your place.’ ”
In between serving up hot plates, Artis hugged customers and posed for photos with them.
“It’s been a good but emotional day,” she said.
Waitress April Maupin said the restaurant was “slammed all day.” As the staff closed up for the final time on Aug. 29, Maupin noted the tears in Artis’ eyes.
“This week has been a real tribute to The Coffee Pot,” she said. “Everyone was there.”